Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson: actor, activist, paper man.
Steve Rogers Photography

Woody Harrelson could put the crunchiest Grist staff member to shame. The Academy Award nominated actor lives off the grid in a solar-powered, organic farming community in Hawaii. He’s been a vegan for 26 years and eats a mostly raw diet. Scratch dairy or meat cravings. He just craves cooked food.

Harrelson, who calls himself a “lover of the forest,” first became involved in environmental causes back when he was playing the part of a bartender on Cheers. In ’92, a bipartisan bill in Congress aimed to make millions of acres of virgin Montana wilderness available to logging companies. Harrelson joined forces with a coalition of environmentalists, including Peter Bahouth of Greenpeace, that was pressuring lawmakers and pushing to weaken the legislation. While the bill ultimately failed, it got him thinking, “Geez, even if you do stop the deforestation here or there, the timber industry just goes somewhere else. You really need to change systems.”

For Harrelson, that meant finding a replacement for paper made from wood. And so, in the late ’90s, Harrelson started working with Canadian entrepreneur Jeff Golfman to figure out how to make paper without using wood. After 15 years of research and development, the company has a product made from 80 percent wheat straw waste. Today, the company, Prairie Pulp & Paper, is announcing the sale of its Step Forward Paper at Staples stores.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Harrelson made brief calls to the media about the announcement. I took the opportunity to ask him about everything BUT paper, but he managed to squeeze in some paper talk anyway. Golfman, Prairie Pulp & Paper’s president, joined us for the call. Here’s our lightly edited conversation:

Q. You recently said that you’re an anarchist. [In a recent interview with Details magazine, Harrelson compared Obama to Nixon, inspiring Breitbart News to write, “Woody Harrelson hates the government far more than the stereotype of the average Tea Partier would suggest.”] How has that shifted your approach to environmental causes?

A. [laughs] I just kind of jokingly made that statement. But it’s fair to say I’m not a big believer in the forms of government I’ve seen. I don’t mean the style of government. I just mean the governments themselves. I haven’t seen any great examples of leaders. Mandela was a real leader, Vaclav Havel. There have been a few that have led with their heart but it’s pretty rare. A lot of self interest.

Q. And Obama hasn’t delivered on the sweeping changes he promised in ’08.

A. I don’t think you can look to governments to change important things like this. This is a paradigm shift. To make this paper from non-wood, if you think about it, every year [timber companies are] cutting down anywhere from 3 to 6 billion trees. Half of that’s going to paper. It’s unsustainable. Right now, we’re using 400 million metric tons of paper worldwide. In 15-20 years, that’s going to double. Paper consumption is actually growing in spite of everyone talking about the paperless office. It’s very important that we shift. The forests are the lungs of the world. I’ve always believed if you breathe, you’re an environmentalist.

Q. I like that. So how do your beliefs clash or mesh with selling the paper at Staples?

A. Woody: Well, let Jeff respond to that.

Jeff: I think your question is a really fair question. [When I first met Woody,] we determined the only way to change the world was to change it from within, and if we work with everybody — corporations, governments, individuals, anarchists, environmentalists. If you roll back the clock a number of years ago, Staples wasn’t the green corporation that is today. Now, it’s a leader in the green movement. That’s because people like Woody and other environmentalists like myself have asked Staples to start carrying green products.

Q. Hollywood often pays lip service to causes, but you seem to be walking the walk when it comes to environmentalism. Do you ever get frustrated by the status quo?

A. I still think there’s a lot of things I need to do before I really feel like I’m walking the walk. I’m in planes quite a lot. I do things to offset my carbon footprint. Years ago I realized, I can’t even talk about environmental stuff unless I’m really reducing my footprint and really trying to be a good example to myself, to my friends. Now, I think I’m in a pretty good place.

Some people are so busy with just trying to put food on the table, they don’t have time to worry about environmental needs. There are a lot of people in Hollywood who don’t have to worry about putting food on the table. They can take a moment and fight for ecological things that they care about. Again, it’s a luxury to be able to do that sometimes.

In this case, we’re talking about making paper that’s the same price as recycled paper, but the content is 80 percent non-wood. So for people who are interested in it, it’s not like we’re asking them to pay more. Ultimately, our plan within three to five years is to have the first non-wood pulp and paper mill in North America up in Winnipeg, [Manitoba]. The source of that is mostly wheat straw which is in abundance after the farmers have already used it for food and also for the health of the soil. There’s a vast amount that’s left over and available. We could have five mills up there. And it’s going to happen.